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To Tap or Not to Tap? Councilor Challenges Mayor to Merrimack River Water Debate

July 14, 2008

By Shawn Regan, The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.

Jul. 14–HAVERHILL — The chief public critic of tapping the Merrimack River for drinking water wants to publicly debate the man who is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to study the idea.

City Councilor James Donahue has challenged Mayor James Fiorentini to debate him on the benefits and need to tap the river for drinking water.

“The public deserves to hear the facts, not the political spin the mayor puts on this issue,” Donahue said. “Let’s put the facts on the table and have an open and honest conversation about water needs in Haverhill. The spending habits of this administration speak for themselves. The mayor has already decided in my estimation to tap the river.”

Donahue opposes spending money to study the viability of drawing drinking water from the Merrimack or tapping the river at all. He also questions the quality and safety of Merrimack River water, despite the fact many of Haverhill’s neighbors have been tapping the river for drinking water for years. River water, like drinking water from Haverhill’s several open-air reservoirs, would be subject to modern and stringent treatment before it was sent to the public tap, city officials have said.

Donahue’s challenge is reminiscent of former Mayor James Rurak’s unsuccessful effort last year to get Fiorentini to debate him on the history of the collapse of the formerly city-owned Hale Hospital, which was sold under Rurak’s watch and left the city with 20 years of multimillion-dollar debt payments. That challenge was pushed personally by Rurak and on city streets by a man dressed in a chicken costume, apparently to symbolize Fiorentini’s reluctance to debate Rurak on the Hale issue.

Fiorentini doesn’t figure to debate Donahue on Merrimack River water either.

The first-term councilor said he e-mailed the mayor the challenge several days ago, but has yet to receive a response.

In an e-mail to The Eagle-Tribune, Fiorentini said now is not the time to debate the issue in any forum.

“We are still gathering facts and until we have the facts, and until we know the results of the tests we are conducting, there is nothing to debate right now,” Fiorentini said.

So far Haverhill has spent $189,000 studying the Merrimack River as a future drinking water source, and there is another $250,000 in the city budget to continue that review.

Furthermore, long-range budget forecasts show the city spending $2 million in 2012 and $4 million in 2013 to draw water from the Merrimack — far too much money for a city struggling to pay its bills every year, Donahue said.

Deputy Public Works Director Robert Ward pointed out the money used already and budgeted to study the Merrimack River the next few years has come from water impact fees paid by residential developers, not water or sewer fees or taxes. Ward, the city’s water and sewer chief, also said the long-range spending projections are broad estimates. No money has been approved to tap the river, he said.

Although Fiorentini is driving the Merrimack study, he has stopped short of saying he supports tapping the river.

“Right now we are conducting tests to see if we can draw water from deep water wells near the Merrimack River,” the mayor said. “When those tests are completed, we will submit the results to the Water and Wastewater Task Force I created last year and ask them for a recommendation.”

Fiorentini said Donahue is welcome to testify before his task force.

“No decision will be made without all the facts and without complete public input,” the mayor said, adding “there will be lots of time for public discussion and public input before a final decision is made.”

Donahue said the mayor should stop tap-dancing around the issue and tell the public his plans.

“The mayor continues to spend money and has not shared his plans with the public,” Donahue said. “He will not say he is for tapping the river, but the spending speaks for itself.”

Fiorentini has said the city needs a backup water supply, not so much for additional population, but to support future business and industrial needs.

“Businesses are the big water users, not residents,” he said recently. “Having a backup water supply is a critical part of economic development and long-term planning. It’s critical to have an alternative water source.”

Fiorentini also said the city is required, by the state and federal government, to search for alternative water sources. Drilling deep wells along the river, which Haverhill has done, tests one of those sources, he said.

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